Arena (June 2001)

THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE

Technically, Christian Bale shouldn’t be working now. According to child star lore, following his big screen debut in Steven Spielberg’s 1987 wartime extravaganza, Empire Of The Sun, he should have been projected into Culkinesque dysfunction and obscurity.

Unbearably endearing in a blustering English public schoolboy way, he was 13 when Spielberg picked him from a cast of 4,000 hungry teenagers. He should have been instantly typecast, driven deep into the depths of a coke habit by 15 and burnt out before he could legally drive. And for a while, for all we knew, that was precisely what had happened.

Following huge critical acclaim for his role in Empire Of The Sun -one review at the time hailed it as ‘one of the best juvenile performances ever captured on film’ – Bale faltered in the post-film publicity. When cornered by interviewers he took to excusing himself on the pretext that he needed the loo, before doing a runner from the building. He hated it when kids his own age began treating him like some kind of freak, and was shaping up very nicely for an early teenage breakdown followed by a slow and painful career meltdown. But then… nothing.

Over the past few years Bale has re-emerged – in his signature quiet, considered way – as a Hollywood force. After patiently stealing back his role as the perfectly chiselled and honed Manhattan serial killer with a penchant for Genesis in American Psycho from Leonardo DiCaprio, and having lurid sex with Ewan McGregor in Velvet Goldmine, his inescapable ability and stupidly handsome looks have wangled him icon status. This summer, he co-stars alongside Penelope Cruz, Nicolas Cage and John Hurt in the unapologetically sunny and sweet movie adaptation of Louis de Bernieres’ ‘war for girls’ novel, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Bale has slowly, but deliberately, achieved the nearest thing to ‘success without celebrity’ that a movie actor of his stature is capable of.

Somewhere in the midst of this, Entertainment Weekly crowned him one of the eight most powerful cult figures of the past decade; Premiere identified him as one of the hottest leading men under 30; and Emily Watson, his co-star in 1997’s Metroland, nicknamed him ‘The Tanty’, after Bale threw a tantrum when a journalist tried to interview him while he was still in his pyjamas.

Ensconced in a trailer on the Dublin set of his next film, Reign Of Fire – which promises an interesting hybrid of the sci-fi and dragon-fighting genres – Bale is still decidedly shifty where publicity is concerned. ‘I have such a problem with celebrity,’ he insists. ‘I’ve got a barrier to ever admitting to being famous. I don’t think I am. Say my name to most people and they won’t know who I am.’ And that’s absolutely the way he likes it.

Christian Bale was born in Pembrokeshire,Wales, in 1974 to entrepreneur father David and sometime circus performer Jane (it’s strange and almost wrong to hear him speak in his ‘own’ Brit-standard voice, when almost all his film roles have required faux American accents). They divorced when he was young and Bale grew up in England, Portugal and California, alongside two older sisters. He wasn’t imbued with any particular burning theatrical ambition, but performing and entertaining, he admits in retrospect, were part of his family’s culture.

His mum was a clown at one point and he was taught to walk the tightrope by a Polish trapeze artist. ‘We were always encouraged to not feel that we couldn’t manage to do anything. When I had an idea that I wanted to try acting it wasn’t laughed at. There was always feeling of “At least give it a go, give it a shot.'”

At school, he began spontaneously organising minor review acts. ‘We’d do little sketch shows based on TV characters that everybody knew. I recall a few times that the teachers would say: “Look, OK, you can do your little sketch but you’ll have to incorporate some of the lessons that we’ve been doing – in some way.” So then there would be some sort of grammar lesson in the middle of a sketch.’ Precocious thespianism all round? ‘I don’t think we had any clue really what kind of theatre we were doing at all.’ School shows eventually evolved into regular gigs on the London stage, which resulted in an audition for the new big Spielberg blockbuster. The rest isn’t quite history.

You spent a fair amount of time in the movie wilderness after gaining child star status in Empire Of The Sun. How hard did it get?

I detest the title child star. I never felt like a child star. I loathed the attention I got after Empire Of The Sun. I realised I liked the process of making films but didn’t like the attention that came after it. So I made a deliberate attempt to carry on enjoying acting, which meant avoiding large movies. I think, because of that, I had it easier than bona fide cute child stars. I was never stopped in the street and I also didn’t play roles that relied on me being a cute kid. So it meant that when I stopped being cute – if I ever was – I wasn’t rejected by the entire industry.

So why do big movies now?

I had a shift of perspective being denied American Psycho – I wanted to do it and the director wanted me to do it – but I simply wasn’t famous enough. But I worked at it, and I won the role back [from Leonardo DiCaprio]. I refused to admit I wasn’t going to do it. Despite advice in the early stages that it would be career suicide, and then being told that it was too big a role for me, I maintained a dialogue with the director, and eventually, everything fell apart for everyone else. Me and [director] Mary Harron were the last ones standing. My agents thought I was in denial because – through all those months – I told them I couldn’t do anything else because I was going to start on American Psycho.

You had to train our body into fearsome shape for that film. Would you ever do the opposite and put on three stone for a role?

Now wouldn’t that be so much ore fun? I could sit in my house all day and eat pasta. I hated training for American Psycho so much that I actually had to get addicted to it. I had to be consistent, never stop, never think: ‘Oh, I’ll take a day off.’ But I hated it. I’d thoroughly enjoy a role where I could sit at home and eat pasta and drink red wine until I fell asleep.

Not an entirely LA attitude. How hard is it for you to be a Brit in Hollywood?

There is the sense of: ‘Ahhh, British actor, great. He’ll be good for Shakespeare, for having sort of funny floppy hair and for wearing frilly shirts and doing period movies.’ A lot of period movies are fantastic but if you can’t get contemporary roles they can be very claustrophobic. When I was making Shaft, I had an American accent the entire time from the first time I walked in the door to meet John Singleton [director], through rehearsals. Then I had one day off and arrived on the set and I was speaking in my English accent. Singleton turned to me and said: ‘What the f**k you speaking like that for?’ I thought he was joking and then he put his head in his hands and said: ‘God, I thought I had hired an American.’ That was great, it was a great compliment really.

Were you ever concerned that you might wind up being the next Hugh Grant?

I think that there is a great danger of that if you advertise your Englishness too much. I don’t mean any disrespect to Hugh Grant, but I want to play as wide a variety of roles as possible.

You get to play a lot of nasty roles. Even in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin your part as Mandras is one of the few dark characters in the film. Do you think casting directors do a search under ‘mean, vicious prick’ and come up with your name?

I don’t think Mandras is a wholly dark character. He’s human, and he becomes dark because of his circumstances. But there’s a great advantage to people seeing you in a different light. It would be as silly for me to just play dark roles as it would to just be the romantic hero, though. But I think I may have cornered the market on wealthy arseholes lately, yes. And one day, I may return to playing them.

While Bale might seem to have overcome his early issues with journalists, and even seem eager to allow chinks of insight into his lifestyle, the moment you touch on anything more personal than behind-the-scenes set anecdotes he runs for cover. Still, this much is known: in January 2000, he married Sandra, a freelance film producer, in Las Vegas. She is, he says, the only person that he has ever been able to spend all day with. ‘Before I just really couldn’t. It didn’t matter who they were, at some point I just wanted to head off and be by myself for a bit, do something different, whatever.’ But push him for any more information, any more details on how they met, or what made them fall in love, what their life together is like, and Bale clams up. ‘I’ve got to start drawing a line here.’ Oh well.

He’s only slightly less reticent on the subject of his (apparently) immaculate physical appearance, which he maintains without the aid of either a stylist or any shopping whatsoever. ‘I hate shopping,’ he spits. ‘Never do it really. I only do it when other people start saying to me: “For God’s sake how many more times can you wear those pants?” When I get the sense that other people are beginning to be repulsed by my appearance, then I think it’s time to go out and buy new stuff. The great benefit of being in movies that are seen by so many people is that you do get the odd designer who says: “Would you like to wear one of our suits?” I usually say: “Lovely, thanks very much.” It’s a good deal for them because there’s no way in hell that they would find me going down the high street to look for it.’

It would seem that Christian Bale is a genuinely reluctant movie star. Uncomfortable with the image concerns that inevitably accompany his status, allergic to the press intrusion, uneasy about the public recognition. After 14 years in the business, he’s just got to the point, he says, where people are asking him for autographs. And he’s not even sure about that. ‘Some people. You just want to smack them. But there are other people who do it in such a way that it’s complimentary. If they’re polite, it doesn’t ruin your whole day.’

Ever considered giving up acting?

I used to consider it every other day. It’s a rewarding job when it goes right, but when it goes wrong, there’s the potential for extreme cock-ups. There’s also the constant rejection. I’ve never got a grip on auditions. Directors told me I just couldn’t do them. Every time I get cast in a role, it’s because of conversations I’ve had with directors. Apparently, I’m just endlessly disappointing in audition.

But you’re glad you’ve persisted?

Every so often. I used to have a couple of days going: ‘Yee-hee! That’s it, I’m not going to act any more.’ And I’d have wild notions about disappearing off on a bike. But eventually, I woke up one morning and thought: ‘You fool, you know you love it. Stop saying you’re going to give it up’.

By Polly Vernon.